There is viable life beyond Substack!

Without doubt, Substack currently is the hottest monetization platform for paywalled and self-published writing.

Even the biggest legacy media took notice. “Reporters are leaving newsrooms for newsletters, their own ‘mini media empire’” the Washington Post headlined end of July.

Substack is a favourite topic for media bloggers and journalists (eg this podcast from Recode Media, Digiday’s claim “Substack has spawned a new class of newsletter entrepreneurs“, my own reporting in pv digest or Bloomberg’s article on “A 28-Year-Old With No Degree Becomes a Must-Read on the Economy”.

Or have a look at this blogpost at digital food magazine Taste which sees e-mail newsletters as the medium of choice for food bloggers. It opens with the claim “The Future of Food Media Is in Your Inbox”. Then, it is focused solely on newsletters published via Substack, as if there were no other means of self-publishing food content or food newsletters.

But there are!

Obviously, Substack is an easy to use platform for publishing newsletters – being they paid or free. There are quite a few people earning considerable sums by selling subscriptions to their Substacks. The story of Bill Bishop’s newsletter Sinocism which should cash in several hundred thousand dollars of subscription payments each year is often told. Myself, I recently wrote about my favourite newsletter which is a sustainable business since many years and which now is published via Substack.

Now! Both have started without Substack and had reached enough revenues to be sustainable before switching to Substack.

Without doubt there are very successful newsletters which have been enabled by Substack. As early as May 2019 it was published that each of the 12 most successful Substack-writers cash in more than US$160,000 per year. Myself, quite often I stumble across reports about exemplary cases of newsletters earning a 6-figure sum with their Substack subscription offers. The above linked Digiday blogpost reports about Luke O’Neil, whose “Substack has been a boon. O’Neil said he is projected to gross more than US$100,000 annually for his popular newsletter Hell World, a unique fusion of stream-of-consciousness writing and reporting about the harrowing nature of American life.” Politics writer Judd Legum is said to earn more than US$100k per year. As is Climate-journalist Emily Atkins. Recently, Authors with some fame (Matt Taibbi, Andrew Sullivan) decided to monetize their me-brand by going Substack.

So the whole world seems to seek the future of its self-publishing business at Substack. I don’t think this is good. And I give you 3 reasons why.

  • A monopoly, an ecosystem where one part is so dominant that all the other parts do have to align themselves with this player, is highly vulnerable. The monopolist might go off the rails (exaggerated tariffs, immoderate requirements, any form of mismanagement). It might be the subject to successful hacking attacks of any kind. Creativity and adaptability of all the other parts will be limited to function in a system which is embossed by the behemoth. (Of course, Substack isn’t a behemoth yet. But it might become one, if the whole world continues to run in this direction. And, anyway, behemoth is a relative term. The real digital behemoths always will dwarf Substack. They might gulp it one day without much of a hiccup. That’s another hazard.)
  • Newsletters are great. But still newsletters are limited. They are EITHER paid for OR free. Other publishing formats allow much more differentiation. Newsletters are one-directional. There is no interactivity. They all look the same.

The Substacks might start with some individual layouts.

Screenshots of the first lines of 5 Substack newsletterse
5 arbitrary Substacks – Napkin Math, Simon Owens's Tech and Media Newsletter, A Media Operator, Vittles, Alice Kennedy

But after scrolling below the fold they are virtually indiscernible.

Screenshot of 5 Substack newsletters after scrolling below the fold
The Substacks Napkin Math, Simon Owens, A Media Operator, Vittles, Alice Kennedy below the fold
  • So all Substacks look the same. It might be even worse when you look at the entry door, the ‘homepage’ of a Substack.
Screenshot of the first page of 5 Substack newsletters
The starting page of the same 5 Substacks. At least with me, at this point Substack is the lead of the experience, not the writer.

After having followed some links which lead to several Substacks the user learns: ‘Ah, a Substack’. I think, at this point Substack is the lead of the experience, not the writer. All Substack writers are publishing under the umbrella of Substack. The look-and-feel of what they do is SUBSTACK. They may think of being self-publishers. In fact, they are Substack-variations.

Substack is not a bad thing, though!

Having said all this, I remind you of the start of this post. Of the success stories. Substack can help you to easily set up your own publishing venture without having to care much for technical and operational questions. That is a good thing.

It’s just not without alternative!!

You might think: “OK. If self-publishing without Substack looks and feels like THIS website, I’d rather stick to Substack.”

That’s fine with me. That is a fair conclusion. I prefer this kind of independence. And is a minimum viable product, a beta at best, anyway.

There are much better examples of successful self-publishers who do not rely on Substack. Think of Ben Thompson’s Stratchery. Read this self-report by Neil Cybart about Above Avalon. Or think of the now substacked Andrew Sullivan who once was a pioneer of self-publishing and a created his own business with nearly US$1M subscriber revenues but gave up this venture because, as he said, it was to stressful to run.

Just THINK of them. Just KNOW, that Substack is NOT without alternatives.